Antibiotic Overuse on Farms: Is the Opinion Tide Turning?

USDA Photos by Lance Cheung/Flickr

It’s been a busy few weeks here at Casa Superbug — including some conference appearances, more on them later — so the first thing I’d like to do is point out some things that appeared while I was offline. Notably: In editorials, three newspapers recently challenged the way antibiotics are used on farms and asked why we can’t do better.

Most important, because it has the biggest circulation: USA TODAY, which on Oct. 27 asked:

Want to ensure that miracle drugs can no longer perform miracles?

Then do what some physicians and industrial livestock farmers have done for years: Overprescribe antibiotics to people, and use them cavalierly in farm animals to promote growth or prevent infections before they even occur.

The piece, ascribed to USA TODAY’s editorial board, is skeptical of the FDA’s plan for voluntary control of growth-promoter antibiotics in livestock raising:

But neither Congress nor the FDA has acted to curtail the broad dangers. The well-financed agriculture industry has won most rounds. And regulators have dragged their feet.

Instead of mandating strict limits, the FDA has issued “guidance” calling on drug makers to stop selling certain antibiotics for unnecessary livestock use, and on farmers and ranchers to stop using the drugs for growth. Use for disease control is still permitted. Will drug makers and farmers really volunteer to give up tens of millions of dollars in profits without a government requirement?

The FDA would give drug makers three more years to comply with its guidance, which still needs final administration approval. That seems like a long time for excessive use to continue and for bugs to keep getting stronger.

A few weeks earlier, the San Jose Mercury News was even more blunt. In a piece headlined “Stop pumping farm animals full of antibiotics” and also written by its editorial board, that paper said:

When historians look back on our time, one question they’re likely to ask is this: How could people have been so stupid as to cripple the lifesaving power of antibiotics by letting farmers pump cows, pigs and chickens full of them?

It’s a clear case of putting profits before people’s lives, and if the FDA and Congress won’t act, California should show them how.

The editorial calls for state law to ban or label meat raised with antibiotics, knowing such legislation would have real effect:

Health threats in the national food supply demand federal action. But the FDA and Congress have known about this danger since at least 1977, and all they’ve done so far is to politely ask the industry to voluntarily, if it wouldn’t mind, reduce antibiotic use. Factory farmers yawned and ignored them.

California has set the pace for the nation on clean-air regulation and other health advances that eventually went national. If the FDA and Congress continue to ignore this very serious threat to public health, California should set rules for meat raised or sold in the state. It is a huge market — and even if factory farmers across the country try to ignore it, consumers are likely to take notice.

The Press-Enterprise of Riverside, Calif. made similar points with a similar call for action:

The nation’s food supply should not add to public health risks. Yet the overuse of antibiotics on farms contributes to the growing weakness of these drugs and the rise of treatment-resistant bacteria. Congress needs to limit agriculture’s use of antibiotics in healthy animals, as a public safeguard…

Congress should not sit idly by while vital medicines become less and less potent. Sensible limits on agricultural antibiotics can protect the public without endangering food production. The nation does not need to return to the days before penicillin, when people routinely died from diseases that modern antibiotics can treat.

It’s not uncommon for the op-ed pages of newspapers to feature calls for action. Op-eds, unlike editorials, are written by interested third parties. But when a newspaper speaks from the editorial page, it is speaking with the voice of the paper’s brand and the power of its circulation. Papers usually reserve that firepower for issues of real public importance. That three newspapers did that in the course of a few weeks suggests to me that public opinion may be turning against ag overuse of antibiotics for real.


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